Theatre Uncut in Edinburgh

Originally written for Exeunt.

Against a backdrop of crisis, cuts, turmoil and disillusionment, theatre seems to be reclaiming its place as an art form at the heart of popular protest. Only a few days after the widely attacked sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, a verdict whose announcement was marked by a day of protest across the world – including an event at the Royal Court Theatre – an embryonic glimpse of this year’s new international incarnation of Theatre Uncut is seen at the Traverse Theatre. It is the sort of protest that feels rough, messy, alive.

The series of short play readings, a taste of what to expect from the full autumn event, takes place not in the auditorium but in the theatre’s bar. We are told that this is to demonstrate that these plays can be performed anywhere; the hope is that this November they will be given life by hundreds of people in village halls and cafes, pubs and community centres. Beyond this straightforward aim, the bar feels like an open, sociable space, a space where audience and performers are not divided by an invisible barrier but where we are able to feel like simply one group of people gathered together with a common interest.

Extending this united messiness, none of the work that is presented is in anything near a finished state. Everyone’s time is given free to Theatre Uncut, meaning that actors assembled from across the festival have had only one hour in which to rehearse and still clutch scripts in their hands. There is something appealingly untidy about it, lending the event a fitting air of urgency. A more slick and polished product would take something from the importance of its message; here the potency lies entirely with the writing.

The pieces that are showcased at the morning event all take differing approaches to the political stimuli, a recognition of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to which Theatre Uncut is responding. Anders Lustgarten’s The Break Out is succinctly metaphorical. A scene between two women given the chance to escape a benign prison and offered a choice between being “comfortably miserable or scarily free”, it confronts our apathy-inducing state of comfort and the illusion of freedom that can be so easily cast.

Meanwhile Blondie, written by Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme graduate Hayley Squires and absolutely nothing to do with Debbie Harry, takes the dystopian route. Playing with the cult of personality that has dominated politics in recent years, reaching its apex with Blair’s brand of “Cool Britannia”, Squires paints a portrait of a leader elected on pure, blonde-haired appeal. The brutal lesson that this leader then teaches the country – to “get a grip” – is lacking in subtlety, but lands a few painful punches on our greedy, fiercely consumerist lack of perspective. Dire as the situation here may seem, Squires reminds us, it is much worse elsewhere.

The most striking piece of the morning, however, is Clara Brennan’s Spine. Heartbreakingly performed by Rosie Wyatt, it tells the tender story of an unlikely friendship between a frail old woman and a teenage girl, while also writing something of a love letter to our dying libraries. It is a delicately multi-layered monologue, touching upon the deep and damaging cuts, the concept of political power and the idea that there is “nothing more terrifying than a teenager with something to say”, but its primary cry is one for compassion. Politics has forgotten people, something that this deeply moving piece does not allow us to do for a moment.

The morning is closed by two pieces even more ad hoc than the rest. In recognition of the Pussy Riot trial that has provoked so much protest around the world, and as a sort of epilogue to the event at the Royal Court at which the defendants’ testimonies were read, three actresses pull on balaclavas while we listen to the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. This is then followed by a rapid response piece by David Greig, written over a matter of days and inspired by recent news. This move towards immediacy is one which helps to solidify the ideas that have been floating shapelessly around the room, firmly reminding us that this is an event connected to and speaking out against very real problems.

But there is also an awareness that this is not enough. Sitting in a room listening to and talking about political issues is not quite action in itself. As Marco Canale’s candid monologueThe Birth of My Violence recognises, putting pen to paper instead of placard can be interpreted as an act of cowardice, an evasion of genuine action in favour of weak intellectualising, and perhaps it is.

What Theatre Uncut lacks in this current presentation is what makes it what it is: the element of mass protest. Performed in a closed space to a few dozen gathered people, these pieces can feel like cursory gestures. But when taken ownership of by people all over the country in a unified raising of voices, these short plays have the power to be much, much more.

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Mirror on the world

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

At London’s Southwark Playhouse, a man stands alone on the stage. In a nod to austerity, there is no other actor to take on the second role in this two-hander; instead, the play recruits its audience to read words projected onto a screen. It is a simple move, but one that speaks of collaborative protest in the face of injustice.

This was just one scene of many from last year’s Theatre Uncut. Harnessing the widespread anger sparked by the government’s Spending Review, this nationwide project hit back at slashes to public spending with a series of short plays that were made freely available for anyone to perform, from professional theatre companies to local am-dram societies, inciting over 800 participants to take action. The spirit was one of united protest, something that has been repeatedly felt in global politics over the last 12 months. It is this spirit that now brings Theatre Uncut back to the front line.

“This year we spoke a lot about whether or not it needed to happen,” says co-artistic director Emma Callander, who has taken the reins from founder Hannah Price for the 2012 season. During these discussions, the creative team found that the appetite for this political brand of collaborative theatre, so evident last year, is far from sated. “We felt that it did need to happen, because there were lots of issues which people still needed to debate and potentially take action on.”

The subjects tackled in this year’s plays read like a catalogue of discontent: the Eurozone crisis, mass civil unrest, the Occupy movement, the sorry state of global capitalism. From its initial platform as a theatrical movement speaking out against the coalition government’s spending cuts, Theatre Uncut has widened into a forum for political debate on myriad issues from around the world.

“It was important for us to put the UK’s situation into an international frame,” Callander explains. Drawing on a politically and economically tumultuous year for much of the globe, the plays from writers including Neil LaBute, Mohammad Al Attar and Lena Kitsopoulou place the UK’s unique problems within the context of a world screaming for change. Callander hopes the global perspectives will create “an exchange of ideas and issues that we need to face from country to country through a theatrical form.”

Going global has, however, had its difficulties. While audiences of the 2011 plays were “quite savvy” about the political and social issues being dissected, conveying national problems to an international audience presents a much greater challenge, but one that Callander describes as “wonderful.”

Such challenges are partly the reason for presenting a selection of the 2012 plays at the Traverse this summer, which will provide a brief glimpse of the work ahead of the full run in the autumn. Reversing last year’s performance schedule, the Fringe is something of a test run for the new pieces, as well as a springboard to reach out to potential collaborators. As Callander points out, there are few better places than Edinburgh to reach an international audience.

In addition to the previews, each Monday morning programme will include quick-fire pieces from emerging writers Stef Smith and Kieran Hurley, hurriedly written in response to whatever is hitting the headlines that week. Sweeping aside the suggestion that the form might have inherent limitations, Callander is infectiously enthusiastic about the possibilities of rapid response theatre. “It’s an immediate, live debate about something that’s happening right there and then.”

Callander sees this form of theatre as a catalyst for discussion, a “totally different beast” to work developed over a longer period. “I don’t even see time as a limitation,” she insists. “The whole point of this kind of theatre is that it’s rough, it’s vital.” To nurture such discussions, Theatre Uncut will be holding post-show talks after each performance, asking that audiences share their thoughts about the plays and engage in debate with the theatremakers.

Despite its origins and the very political nature of the material it explores, Callander is uncomfortable with Theatre Uncut being pigeonholed as political theatre. “All theatre,” she argues, “is in some way political, because everything is political.” But what she does recognise is drama’s ability to effect change, on individuals as much as policy-makers. “It’s where I go to learn how to live better,” she says of the theatre. “It’s the way that I best understand the world, so I hope that I can facilitate that for other people.”

Above all, she stresses, Theatre Uncut hopes to “encourage debate and galvanise action”. And can we expect this debate to continue? Callander’s answer is firm and concise. “As long as we feel the need is there, we’ll present it.”

Topical or Typical? Responsive Theatre Programming

I think most of us can agree that, when it wants to, theatre as an art form is pretty good at responding. A response can, of course, mean many things, from passive acknowledgement to probing investigation to active retort. Think only of the Tricycle Theatre’s renowned verbatim plays, the most recent example being its analysis of last summer’s riots, or of the nationwide movement initiated by Theatre Uncut following the coalition government’s Spending Review. One thing that theatre is generally considered to be capable of doing and doing well is responding to the world around us.

But I wonder if sometimes it is responding merely for the sake of responding. This is not a thought that has newly occurred to me; I’ve written in the past about the ways in which theatre responds to current events and about whether it exploits topical subjects to create intriguing drama. In that case I concluded that while there may be different ways of writing in response to current events and issues, there is not necessarily anything wrong with using these as a creative springboard and that in fact it can result in thought-provoking, compelling plays. What if, however, self-labelled ‘topical’ theatre is not really responding at all?

I quoted Simon Stephens’ Bruntwood Prize launch speech in that previous article, but it is worth referencing again, not least because Stephens speaks extremely articulately about his craft and about the wider world of theatre. In a climate where theatres could very well take a ‘more tentative approach to programming’, Stephens sees the Bruntwood Prize as an opportunity for playwrights to write those challenging, truly responsive plays that might not otherwise get heard, describing the competition as ‘a clarion call to all playwrights’.

Perhaps the same clarion call ought to be extended to the theatre industry as a whole. It is undoubtedly a difficult time and despite the many challenges faced by the sector there are still lots of interesting, responsive conversations going on. But my worry is that some theatre which is masquerading under the guise of being incisively topical really has little new to say and that its connection to current affairs is being used as a sort of self-congratulating mask (or, if I was to be particularly cynical, that it is piggy-backing on sensationalist hype).

The one current issue that particularly sparked these thoughts was the Leveson Inquiry and the debate about press practices that continues to rumble on. While theatre was extraordinarily speedy in formulating responses to the spending cuts and the summer riots (in the case of the latter, it was quicker even than any official response), the reaction to the phone-hacking scandal has been sluggish by comparison. Although Theatre503’s Hacked and now a revival of Doug Lucie’s media corruption play The Shallow End at the Southwark Playhouse have seized on the subject matter, we have yet to see anything vaguely resembling a full dramatic dissection.

Hacked was perhaps, ironically, hampered by the rapidity of its conception. Put together in the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, it used the provocative and novel (if slightly gimmicky) idea of hacking the phones of six volunteers to create six short plays. The brief to the playwrights was vague, but this was a piece that, by the free admission of its curators, did not want to deal too directly with the causes and ramifications of a scandal that was still emerging.

This reticence to begin heavily analysing an issue which was still very blurred is wholly understandable, but there is an argument that this piece of theatre might have been more valuable had it waited a little longer. That said, some of the short plays did grapple with the troubling implications of the News of the World fallout, particularly Matt Hartley’s satirical take on the dangers of interpretation and Dawn King’s entertaining consideration of privacy. Unfortunately, there was a far from consistent focus and an overall sense that this was skirting around the big questions.

The Shallow End, meanwhile, is clearly a different matter, having been written in 1997, long before the phone-hacking revelations. However, I wonder what the thought process was behind reviving this now, aside from its obvious resonance with today’s press. Yes, Doug Lucie’s satire predicted the media corruption that has now been exposed, but it reveals and asks very little about its causes. As I put it in my review, this feels like ‘sloppily topical programming’. The intention behind the revival is understandable, but its effect is ultimately disappointing.

What would be truly interesting, and what theatre has the capacity to do in a way in which other forums don’t, would be to get to the real crux of the matter, the deep-rooted causes behind the faces that get slapped on front covers. What is it that convinces an ordinary person to brutally invade the privacy of another individual? What is the psychological need that drives the insatiable demand for tabloid gossip? The phone-hacking scandal is a frightening phenomenon because so many people are so complicit. This is not just about headlines; this is a deeply human issue that could be intelligently explored by one of the most human of all art forms. But perhaps the play that really scrubs away at the grime to get to the heart of the issue is just too challenging for today.

Returning once again to Simon Stephens, the playwright recently claimed that the recession has made British theatregoers more conservative. Speaking to Aleks Sierz for Theatrevoice, Stephens said: ‘I think people’s taste for theatre, in the past three years, has shifted more towards the commercial and the accessible’. Maybe, in the end, it is this shift in attitude that we have to thank for all this dancing around the real issues. Has the recession and growing conservatism among audiences resulted in an appetite for the topical without the challenging?